Our Museum Feature this month, a blue and white decorative tile from Minton, features a charming pastoral depiction of the Boston State House as it looked in 1818. While most tiles are meant to be used as floor coverings or decorative accents for walls, fireplaces, and furniture, this particular tile was produced by Minton to be sold as a souvenir for Boston visitors. Produced around 1895, the tile was one of a pair of tiles made exclusively for Macullar, Parker & Company, a large clothing manufacturer in Boston at the time. An advertisement for the tiles states, “Six-inch Tiles, made by Minton, bear beautiful representations of The Old John Hancock House in 1863, just prior to its demolition, and The Boston State House in 1818, as it appeared, when cows were pastured on the Common.... [t]hese are indestructible souvenirs of Boston, and commemorate two of the most historical structures of this country. They were made by the famous Mintons, of England, exclusively for [Macullar, Parker & Company], and obtainable nowhere else.” Although the history of the tile’s production is certainly interesting, the subject of the tile, the Boston State House, has an interesting history of its own.
Built in 1798, the Boston State House sits on Boston’s Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Prior to the State House’s construction, the land was a cow pasture owned by Revolutionary patriot John Hancock. The building was designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect who also planned the U.S. Capitol’s central section. The original wooden dome of the State House was initially covered in copper provided by Paul Revere’s company, but is now gilded in 23 karat gold. Today, the Boston State House continues to operate as the government seat for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Decorative tiles, such as the one featured, date to the fourth century BC in Asia. The spread of the Roman Empire helped propagate the use of decorative tiles throughout Europe, but the practice waned and eventually died out during the Dark Ages. Decorative tile-making was revived in the twelfth century, when Cistercian monks began making and using ceramic tiles for church and cathedral decorations and flooring. By the sixteenth century, tile production had again disappeared in Europe for the most part, but tiles continued to be made and used in Turkey and parts of the Middle East. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Delft began producing a large number of Delftware tiles in Holland. However, ceramic floor tile production was not widespread in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century, when a renewed interest in medieval culture and decoration (including decorative tile) led to a growing demand. It was around this time that Herbert Minton became interested in tile manufacturing.
Minton China was founded in 1793 when Thomas Minton decided to open a small porcelain factory in Stoke-on-Trent, England, after years of apprenticeships with Josiah Spode, Josiah Wedgwood, and John Adams, and a stint working throughout England as an engraver. Originally, Minton China decorated earthenware blanks with blue transfer designs. These designs were popular at the time, and were sold in mass quantities to London retailers. In 1798, Thomas Minton began traveling throughout England in search of clay suitable for the production of fine porcelain. Once he found suitable clay, Minton began producing creamware, transferware, stoneware, and hand-painted earthenware designs. When Thomas Minton died in 1836, he left Minton China to his son, Herbert Minton, who proved to be an invaluable addition to the company. Herbert’s artistic vision, creativity, and business acumen led Minton China to the forefront of the industrial age.
Herbert first became interested in tile production in 1828, and by 1830 he had purchased a patent for an encaustic tile-making process very similar to the process used by the Cistercian monks in the twelfth century. In making encaustic tiles, designs are first pressed in hollows in the tile, then filled with different colored clays before being fired, making the colored elements of the tile more durable. Minton’s tile production advanced even more in the 1840s with the development of “dust-pressing,” a process that involves compressing almost dry clay between two metal dies to form tiles. Dust-pressing allowed for a more mechanized tile-making process, which in turn led to cheap mass production. During the Victorian period, hand-painted, industrial strength tiles became popular in manor homes, state homes, churches, and castles. To capitalize on the booming tile market, in 1845 Minton partnered with Michael Hollins to create a separate firm dedicated to manufacturing tiles. Producing exquisitely decorated and well-crafted tiles, Minton, Hollins & Co. soon became one of the leaders in the decorative tile market. The company displayed its products at exhibitions throughout the world, winning numerous gold medals along the way. A large Minton tile display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition prompted one critic to note, “Messr. Minton shone superior to all exhibits of the sort... and may be cited as showing the highest results in tile-pottery achieved by modern skill and research.” Today, examples of Minton’s tile can be found in the United States Capitol building, both houses of Parliament, Lichfield Cathedral, and many other prestigious buildings.
Although the featured tile in our museum is not for sale, we do have many wonderful Minton China pieces available for purchase from our inventory; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our retail store and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The retail store and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!